Towards a Low Carbon Society – Speech by He Ting Ru

Delivered in Parliament on 12 January 2022

Mr Speaker

Today’s motion is about how we can move towards a low-carbon society. It rightly points out that in order to do so, there is much more to be done through the partnerships we build between the business, government and people sectors in order to move Singapore’s transition towards a low-carbon society. Indeed many advanced economies like Japan are setting bold targets of being carbon neutral or even carbon negative. This is no doubt even more important because of the pressing climate and resource crisis faced by everyone on earth, and we in Singapore must do our fair share to bring about a green and sustainable future for our planet. 

The Workers’ Party supports this, but I would like to note now that, while important, moving towards being low-carbon and ‘going green’ is only part of the wider picture of how our economy and society should look like in the future. Changes need to be systematic, and sustainable in the long-run. And being sustainable goes beyond just the environmental impact – it also includes the sustainability of the social, economic and cultural impacts that our industries and businesses have on our communities, and these aspects are intertwined with and often inseparable from environmental matters. So while it is the case that we must urgently take bold and swift action to move towards a low carbon society, it would be a massive missed opportunity if we deal with these issues in silos and our efforts to reduce our carbon emissions are taken in isolation from the social, economic and cultural aspects of sustainability.

To achieve these aims, our businesses could take inspiration anew from John Elkington’s original idea about the ‘Three Ps’ – People, Planet, Profit, which he has since adapted to refer to People, Planet and Prosperity.

Specifically, he has called for our industries to look to minimise negative impacts and to maximise our positive impacts on all three aspects, and I believe there is much wisdom in this approach. 

Singapore, our businesses and industries, are irreversibly plugged into the global trade and supply chain ecosystem. Even trends of ‘glocalisation’ exacerbated by the shocks brought about by the pandemic have not reduced the complexity of our global supply chains. Our position at the crossroads of many networks – whether they relate to physical trade such as our importance as a trading port, or services such as data centres, financial and fintech systems – means that we continue to be in a position to exert influence far beyond our shores. Corporate responsibility cannot remain focused only on issues within our borders but must consider the external impact of our industries’ actions beyond Singapore shores.

We therefore must build credible, accountable and sustainable ecosystems for our businesses to thrive in, beyond our borders where necessary. To do so, we must not only,  as the motion states, seek greater Government intervention to enhance corporate accountability, but we must also create the right sets of incentives and regulations to build genuine, thoughtful corporate practices to maximise positive impact on our People, Planet and Prosperity. We also must be wary of cheap marketing gimmicks which serve the purpose of winning short-term customer favour. Instead we should work together with our industries to rewrite the playbook to create genuine, sustainable change.

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to, as part of my job, work on a campaign within what was seen as a ‘sunset’ industry to lead the charge to drive consumer and industry change. We created a campaign backed by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to set out clear, direct steps for consumers and industry players to advocate, in order to banish antiquated and unsustainable practices. While tackling “Planet” – the environmental and ecological impact of operations, we quickly realised that we also needed to address the “People” and “Prosperity” elements in tandem to effect meaningful change for the industry. This was no less because ensuring that smallholders were able to earn a living wage in turn reduced the likelihood that they would – as a matter of necessity – sacrifice long-term goals for short-term gains which were often environmentally harmful in order to feed their families.   

We thus worked with global and local NGOs to develop best practices and educational materials for workers to understand what they needed to do in order to keep safe, while minimising the impact that they had on the environment. These practices would maximise the long-term sustainability of the land and their livelihoods by adopting new technologies such as adopting better ways of ensuring robust traceability in the supply chain. For customers, be it B2B or end-users, education also had to be done to explain why the current pricing mechanism was lacking, and also why they should demand sustainability when making their consumption choices.

While working on agricultural sustainability practices in rural settings may seem a long way from best-practices in our local urban context, the principle of ensuring genuine sustainability in environmental practices applies equally to us, as well as in our cross-border investments.

For example, Singapore-based Olam which found itself in hot water in Brazil. This issue was recently brought up by my Aljunied colleague Leon Perera, as allegations were made by the Brazil Federal Labor Prosecution Office and the ILO, the International Labor Organization, that the company participated in the widespread use of child and slave labour in Brazil’s cocoa industry. In filings last year, Olam admitted that they could not trace the origin of all their cocoa beans. This is despite marketing messages on its website that promise customers that they will know that the chocolate “has been produced in a way that supports the most vulnerable people and environments in the supply chain”.

While environmental and social issues as a corporation become increasingly critical, the government plays a key role in holding corporations accountable. These examples illustrate the importance of how important a holistic approach is to ensure that our planet and people continue to thrive, and how we need to build the right corporate culture in Singapore across these various spheres of sustainability. It is also insufficient to allow companies to be mindful only of direct actions performed within our shores when they have wide impact beyond. As mentioned, the intricate and complicated nature of the global supply chain makes traceability and accountability even more important than ever. Only then can we be certain that corporations – and the products we buy and also what our Government buys – not only do not harm the environment, have minimal footprints, but also do not participate in the exploitation of vulnerable peoples. 

It is not always straightforward for companies to audit the practices of their suppliers (or even going further upstream) to ensure compliance up and down the entire supply chain, but we must not let perfection be the enemy of the good. Working with the Government to make best efforts to build more robust measures to place greater accountability across the system will make significant headway toward guarding against Singaporean consumers being unknowingly complicit in some of the ills we read about such as poor labour practices or the disregard of the environmental impact of practices up and down the entire supply chain.

With this in mind, I have three suggestions to set us on this path:

First, companies operating in Singapore should perform diligence on their supply chains and need to proactively mitigate against any risks along the supply chain.

In 2017, France passed a law that required companies above a certain size to establish a “plan of vigilance” for identifying risks of human rights, health and security or environmental violations within their global supply chains. This required companies to proactively build a view of the risks within their supply chain and to put in place procedures to mitigate these risks. This allowed companies to better evaluate potential partners and subsidiaries, and also requires mechanisms to be put in place for workers and organisations to flag violations.

This approach is especially relevant in the post-pandemic era, where businesses everywhere are re-examining the sustainability of their supply chains and looking into whether they can be rationalised or shortened. It is thus a perfect opportunity to weave in such considerations as part of the economy wide rethinking. Instead of viewing this as just a cost, we can recognise the competitive advantage this could bring us: as a high-income country, we should be ensuring our own suppliers are environmentally and socially sensitive, to offer a competitive edge to those who source from other high-income countries that care about such considerations. It would thus be prudent for our Government to carefully assess whether similar requirements can be placed on companies that operate in Singapore, perhaps beginning with companies exceeding a certain size. Whether or not strong incentives rather than legislation would be sufficient to encourage enough adoption of this will remain to be seen.

Second, we must play our part on the global stage to strengthen the global regime for regulation around supply chains and to be an active player to support wider adoption of such practices internationally. This would ensure that the majority of competitors on the global stage invest in similar practices, and would also ensure a level playing field. While it may take a while to get there, we should take heart from the recent adoption of a global minimum tax rate of 15% by 136 countries, and know that with the right effort, it can be done.

Third, we should continue to support industries that harness latest innovations from fields such as Artificial Intelligence and Sensor tracking to allow companies and governments to exercise greater vigilance of supply chains. For manufacturing companies, introducing technology from the Internet-of-Things allows managers to seamlessly monitor performance of their production lines in real time, and also enables accurate information about matrices such as energy consumption and the carbon footprint of their processes. 

Blockchain technology too should be looked into for traceability. It might seem gimmicky to see lobsters in the Jumbo Seafood tanks wearing tags with QR codes that tell you exactly where they were caught and by which fisherman, but the technology actually holds huge potential. It allows the capture of information to allow for more efficient fleet-planning, and can raise an alert if overfishing is occurring. It also plays a role in consumer education, providing information such as the carbon footprint of their food and gives confidence that the food is traceable to its source, and that the technology is there to track and ensure that good, sustainable practices are adhered to. 

These issues and ambitions may sound remote, especially in a world where many are struggling to put food on the table. But the reality is that we are facing a resource-scarce future. In the long run, our local businesses would benefit from being encouraged to start building a sensitivity towards supply chain vigilance, and can use this to set themselves apart from our competitors, especially in Asia, to lead the way in markets that put a premium on goods and services that are accountable and sustainable. This would give a big leg up in the internationalisation efforts of these companies.

That said, I want to bring the spotlight back to the importance of citizen awareness and activism to amplify the effectiveness of any government regulation or policy in this space. When consumers are more aware and demand sustainable and green practices, and a mindfulness over the carbon footprint, the greater the incentive will be on companies to be aware of the risks within their supply chain and to adopt greener practices. To be blunt, if investing in greener practices has no impact on how consumers buy, companies may then shrug and continue with business as usual.

To address this, we can take a few steps. 

First, awareness of our sustainability efforts has to be built into our education system at all levels. Our students should leave our education system with a solid foundation in the importance of sustainability, and also with a vernacular to understand and analyse the information that they receive in the media and from other companies of the efforts that have been undertaken. This vaccination against greenwashing – a topic which has been raised by some of my colleagues – would enable consumers to be critical recipients and build a disincentive toward any greenwashing. 

Second, we must strengthen protections granted to whistleblowers to ensure that any violations have a higher chance of being found out, and that a culture of corporate responsibility is better protected by workers and employers alike. Frameworks or regulations that tackle false and misleading practices, including greenwashing, should also be considered to protect or empower consumers to flag our instances of greenwashing.

Finally, we must work with independent activists in the sustainability space, and work collaboratively with them to build a strong ecosystem. This can identify blind spots and encourage innovative solutions and approaches that businesses may not have thought of. We need to leverage the passion these activists have to nudge our industries to do better.

All these taken together would enhance the literacy and fluency of citizens in sustainability related issues, enabling a more analytical and skeptical population who are willing to question and call out abuses or false marketing from companies. These citizens would be inoculated against marketing gimmicks by both industry and governments that might disingenuously suggest sustainability conscious practices and generate genuine imperative on them to be truthful and transparent with citizens. For after all, our society and economy would be nothing in a world facing climate meltdown brought about by short-sighted unsustainable practices that fail to account for People, Planet and Prosperity.

Thank you.